Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Sounds of Our Lives

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If you had to ‘brand’ your city or town with a tune, what would it be? In New York City’s case, it’s hard to go past Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’ (though “Welcome to New York” by Taylor Swift is a lively reprise). However, most of the sound we typically associate with the place we live is accidental and unpleasant. We stand on street corners shouting over the sound of passing traffic. We’re certainly not humming along to Frank Sinatra.

A recent article raised an interesting question about why brands, but not cities, have sonic strategies. Brands have been pairing sounds and music with products, companies, organizations and ideas for decades. Composer Walter Werzowa’s five note ‘Intel bong’ jingle is arguably one of the most famous, reportedly broadcast once every five minutes somewhere in the world.

‘Sonic strategy’ in the context of towns and cities refers to a wide range of sounds. Sure, we have the usual sirens, subway announcements and crosswalk signals that usher us through our daily lives. But where’s the sonic Feng Shui?

Joel Beckerman, composer of jingles for AT&T, CBS and others, argues that bad sound is as detrimental to quality of life as bad streetlights or poor sidewalks. He wants us to start thinking with our ears and about the impact of our ‘sonic environment’. A TED talk by Julian Treasure, ‘4 ways sound affects us’, makes a similar appeal to raise sound in our consciousness, arguing that bad sounds are bad for our health and productivity.

Savvy sound designers are starting to do more. In Tokyo, subway stations each have their own jingle as a way to identify different stops. The Moscow metro indicates a train’s direction by using either a male or female announcer. Simple. Innovative.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Scoring With Sustainability

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There are billions of sports fans around the world. Each Premier League match attracts an average global audience of 12.3 million people. This year's Champions League final reached an estimated 380 million football fans. These fans watch and support their team – so what if their team supported sustainability? Sport has the potential to reach and influence a huge audience of people, which means huge potential for delivering environmental messages and promoting behaviour change.

Recently, Gloucestershire-based football club Forest Green Rovers created the UK’s first organic football pitch. Over just three years, the club has eliminated all nitrogen-based fertilisers and chemicals from its ground maintenance. The club now uses plant-derived products on their field, and off the pitch they’re even washing their team kit in phosphate-free washing powder.

Forest Green Rovers are a Conference Premier team, four leagues below the Premier League. Is there any reason that top flight teams can’t make steps to do the same? In New Zealand, a social enterprise called Project Lightfoot is leading the charge by working with community sports teams for free to make environmental improvements, and getting prominent New Zealand sports stars on board to champion the cause.

Compared to the fate of the planet, changes around the kicking, hitting and throwing of balls might seem a bit small. However, sports teams and businesses can use their platform and huge influence to increase awareness of sustainability. Even small changes could get people thinking twice, saving energy, cutting waste and reducing pollution.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Deep Time Thinking

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Every now and again I’ll come across something that really surprises. This time that something was an article about ‘deep time’ thinking, which explores our understanding of time and how our collective experience of it is being transformed.

In many ways, in many places around the world, projects and initiatives are challenging our notion of time and encouraging us to extend our thought’s reach back – way, way back – into the past, and way, way forward into the future.

An on-going research project in New Zealand, A Walk Through Deep Time, invites people to walk along a fence line of 457 metres to represent 4.57 billion years, as part of a discussion and walk-through of deep time. In the US, the National Academy of Sciences has an exhibition Imagining Deep Time, which explores a common interest in the vast timescale through art.

Deep time thinking is about the big picture. It’s about thinking about our very distant future and our multi-billion year past. As the name implies, it’s about thinking about time – moving beyond our own artificial construct of time and its associated hours, days, weeks, deadlines and dates – and thinking about something that’s outside the realm of human experience.

Climate change and sustainability are crying out for us to think across generations, and to engage with thoughts across radically long time spans. Deep time thinking is no longer just the domain of the ‘ists’ among us – astrophysicists, palaeontologists, geologists – it is our collective responsibility.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Case for Radical Optimism

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Business Insider strikes again on behalf of radical optimism. In a piece this week by Natasha Bertrand, the case is made that the world is getting better on a whole lot of fronts, despite the pressing urgency of daily headlines. Dr. Max Roser from the Oxford Martin School and a fellow at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, has created OurWorldinData, a website that tells the visual story of how the world is changing.

"We are far away from an ideal world — we should work to end poverty, to end hunger, to end war — but in all of these aspects we are making progress," Roser wrote in an email to Business Insider. His work is an example of how Big Data can assist in framing our perspectives and direct our focus on what needs to be addressed with urgency. His charts show, for example, that:
  • The percent of the world's population living in extreme poverty is declining drastically. 
  • As global GDP increases, inequality between world citizens is shrinking. Incomes are increasing much faster than food prices. 
  • Rates of undernourishment have plunged across the developing world. Famines have become very rare. 
  • The world has become vastly more equal in terms of life expectancy. 
  • More babies are surviving infancy around the world. Africa has had a particularly steep drop in child mortality between 1990 and today. 
  • Diseases like Malaria are costing fewer lives than they once did. 
  • The number of people dying from AIDS has been declining over the last decade, as well. 
  • Fewer girls in the US are getting pregnant while they're still teenagers. 
  • Cigarette sales in early industrialized countries have dropped to their lowest point in 40 years. 
  • Because of better infrastructure, natural disasters are killing fewer people. 
  • The world is becoming more dramatic. 
  • The proportion of countries experiencing civil wars has declined significantly since 1990. 
  • The percentage of the world's population dying in violent conflicts has decreased in the recent past. Fewer people are dying in genocides. 
  • Government spending on social welfare is increasing around the world. Throughout the world, people are becoming more educated.       

Thursday, November 13, 2014

What Made Abbey Road So Good

Abbey Road is undoubtedly one of the most famous recording studios of all time. It made a name for itself with the Fab Four – literally, when it was renamed after The Beatles album that made it famous. Then followed Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Elton John, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The list goes on.

A recent article in The Atlantic dubbed Abbey Road ‘Pop Music’s Westminster Abbey’ – part tourist attraction, part working cathedral where all the traditional rites and rituals are still observed. In Abbey Road’s case, ‘traditional rites and rituals’ relates to music recording and technology, which has changed so much since “Come Together”.

There is a fine balance to be struck between blending aspects of old and new – even The Beatles had to contend with this hurdle. But they were all about breaking rules. This meant new and interesting sounds, and rough edges, but that’s what gave their music a human element. It simply wasn’t possible for music to be perfect, and this forced a commitment to creative choices at an earlier stage in the recording process.

One small mistake could mean scrapping an entire recording – or embracing that mistake. Today, we have modern tools and technology that iron out any imperfections, feeding our natural tendency towards continual improvement. This doesn’t always produce a better product. Brian Kehew, music engineer and co-author of Recording the Beatles, said it best: “when it comes to what people like about music, there was actually only one thing worse than these imperfections: perfection.”

Abbey Road invokes a spirit that is central to enduring work – taking risks with whatever tools you have, using a lot of skill, imagination, some serendipity, and – above all – a human touch.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Donut Theory

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Edge is one of my big E words. Edge theory is the idea that change happens at the margins rather than in the muddling orthodoxy of the center. I came across a prescient expression of edge theory in the donut analogy that leadership expert Camille Preston used in a Fortune article last week to decipher the way we live and learn.

The donut hole represents our comfort zone. Routine. Familiarity. Boredom. The actual donut represents our learning zone, where we feel inspired, awake and alive. This is where we experiment and learn new things. The edge of the donut is where the magic happens – with some trepidation. It’s the edge of our learning zone, with our comfort zone marking a mere spot in the distance, where we face challenges and achieve results worth fighting for.

So what sets the fighters apart from those who avoid the donut’s edge? Grit. Stamina. Determination to succeed. Saatchi & Saatchi called it “Nothing is Impossible.”

Camille Preston offers five strategies to develop your grit:
  1. Be agile. Flexible in your approach, but firm on your outcome. 
  2. Know your way. Seek clarity of purpose. It will drive you. 
  3. Get emotional. Don't be afraid of getting a little hot under your collar. Emotion brings energy and drive to succeed. 
  4. Build the best team. Surround yourself with people who you like hanging out with, who you trust, and who will take care of you. 
  5. Unplug often. Take time out to reflect and renew. 
Things to meditate on next time you’re eating a donut.